A campaign to launch a small spacecraft propelled through space by ultra-thin solar sails has crowdfunded enough in just one day to build the spacecraft.

The private, non-profit Planetary Society and its CEO Bill Nye had raised $200,000 on Kickstarter by Wednesday afternoon, just a day after they launched their campaign to help fund their LightSail spacecraft.

The bread loaf-sized spacecraft is powered by solar sails, designed to capture the momentum from solar energy photons using large, mirrored surfaces. The small, continuous acceleration allows a spacecraft propelled by solar sails to reach high speeds over time without carrying or burning any fuel.

The money raised on Kickstarter will cover construction of the spacecraft used in the primary mission, which will launch in 2016. A low-altitude test flight is scheduled to launch May 20.

Lightsail Spacecraft Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

The Planetary Society's LightSail spacecraft, seen here on its deployment table at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, is scheduled to launch in May and unfurl its sails in June. (Justin Foley/Planetary Society)

Altogether, the project is expected to cost $5.46 million. The Planetary Society says it has $1.2 million left to raise.

Now that it has met its initial goal, the group is trying to raise up to $800,000 before June 26 to fund several "stretch" goals:

  • Integration and testing of the spacecraft with the help of the group's partners Ecliptic Enterprises, Georgia Tech, Cal Poly SLO, and Space Science.
  • Covering operations during the four months of the primary mission.
  • Gathering, analyzing and publishing the data with the help of scientific and engineering community.
  • A public awareness and education campaign.

Backers are being promised rewards such as T-shirts, "ownership" of a square centimetre of the sail and a Raspberry Pi computer installed with software designed to track the spacecraft.

The Planetary Society, which was co-founded by astronomer Carl Sagan, tried to launch the world's first solar sail, Cosmos 1, in 2005, but the launch vehicle failed and it never reached orbit.

Five years later, the first solar sails were deployed by Japan's Venus-bound IKAROS spacecraft and NASA's NanoSail-D satellite in low-Earth orbit.

NASA has two upcoming solar sail missions, one to the moon and the other to an asteroid, scheduled for 2018.